Johann Hari: The child who kills is the child who never had a chance

Everything we know tells us child killers are invariably victims of extreme abuse

Related Topics

I have met children who became killers several times in my life: in the warzones of the Congo and the Central African Republic, and in the grey Young Offenders' Institutes of Britain. When I read about the events that are alleged to have happened last weekend in South Yorkshire, I kept thinking about their small, paranoid eyes. Two brothers – aged ten and eleven – have been charged with torturing two other, younger kids. The victims had been hit with bricks, burned with cigarettes, and slashed with knives in a wild field.

We are a long way from knowing what happened in that field that afternoon, or who carried out these acts. The visceral temptation when any child faces such accusations is to brand them as inherently evil demons who should be locked up far from us for life. But the most famous case of child-on-child killing in British history – that of Mary Bell – shows us how flawed this initial reaction is.

In 1968, in the sagging streets of the poorest part of Newcastle, a ten-year-old girl strangled two toddlers – Martin Brown, and Brian Howe – to death. She then cut their bodies, and with her best friend, a mentally disabled 13-year-old, she left notes in a nursery saying: "We did murder Martain brown, fuckof you BAstArd." She was reflexively described in the press as a child who had been "born evil", a "monster" and "demon".

Now we know what happened to her to make her into such a child. Mary's mother, Betty Bell, was a severely disturbed alcoholic who had been sectioned at least once. She worked as a prostitute specialising in sado-masochism – whippings and stranglings. The first thing she said when Mary was placed into her arms after giving birth was: "Take the thing away from me!" She rejected her daughter and repeatedly tried to kill her by feeding her an overdose of sleeping tablets. But eventually, she did find a use for Mary. Once she turned four, she began to pimp her to paedophiles.

Mary never knew who her father was, but she suspected her mother had been inseminated by her own dad. Later in life, she asked her mother point blank if this was the case. She didn't deny it. Betty simply said quietly: "You are the devil's spawn."

When she was ten, Mary made friends with another girl who was being raped by a local paedophile. All they had known in their lives was violent abuse – and they began to act it out. Mary tried to cut off one of the boy's penises with a razor – a plain, crazed act of revenge for what she had experienced since she was a toddler.

Yet it is strangely comforting to see evil as a primordial external force, something alien that can be hunted down and confined to cages. It dodges the colder truth that I have learned from all the child-killers I have met: we all have the capacity for terrible cruelty and sadism, especially if we are subjected to horror ourselves. Which of us can be confident that, given such Mary Bell's childhood, we wouldn't have done something depraved?

Yet the trial of the two children who killed Jamie Bulger – and the websites trying to figure out where they are now, so they can be lynched – suggests we have barely progressed since then. Excellent works of investigative journalism like Blake Morrison's book As If have uncovered evidence that these children were subjected to violent and probably sexual abuse. We don't want to hear it. We want devils and demons and a black-and-white world that tells us: no, it couldn't have been you; this crime belongs to a different species.

These killings are not political parables. However much right-wingers want to make this a story about welfare dependency and left-wingers want to make it a story of brutal Thatcherite economics, these rare murders have happened in Britain at the same rate for over a century. They have to be understood at the personal, human level.

To understand and explain these cases is not to excuse, or justify. We are talking about the most terrible thing that can happen to a person: torture, and murder. The children who do this need to be humanely detained for as long as they are a danger. But everything we know about children who kill tells us they are invariably victims of extreme abuse themselves, deserving of compassion, not hysterical condemnation.

I have watched my friend Camilla Batmanghelidjh – the director of Kids Company – work with children in South London who have bricked, bottled and tortured other children. She explains: "Since the Bell and Bulger cases, we've learned a lot about how a developing brain reacts to abuse, but the judicial system hasn't caught up.

"We now know from brain scans that if you have really poor quality care in childhood, your pre-frontal lobes don't develop properly. Those are the parts of the brain that think rationally, empathise, and exercise self-control. It is physically impossible for these children to calm down and think a situation through. Their brains haven't developed that way."

So to treat them like morally responsible mini-adults who just made a bad decision – as the British courts do today – doesn't make sense. It is a neurological fiction.

When this impaired brain chemistry combines with violent abuse and rape, the children can become time-bombs. "They have been taught to see the world through one template: you're a victim, or you're an abuser. That's how they think human relationships work," Batmanghelidjh puts it. "At first, they are abused, and at some point they become determined to be a perpetrator, because then at least they have power and control. If you think those are your only two options in life, it seems preferable."

As she said this, I remembered the child soldiers in Central Africa who pointed guns into my face and smirked. Their families had been bayoneted in front of them, and they had buried the bodies themselves. In the warzones of the Congo, I met 11 and 12-year-old boys who had seen their mothers and sisters snatched away, and were then picked up by the militiamen and trained to rape and kill. Like Mary, they were re-enacting the violence they had experienced in a desperate attempt to switch roles: this time, they were the Big Men.

Children who kill are a question of mental health, not morality. They are internally destroyed children, not devils. Given the love and support that they deserve, such children can develop their frontal lobes and their capacity for empathy over time, and be released. As Gita Sereny's reportorial masterpiece Cries Unheard shows, Mary Bell eventually developed into a morally responsible adult and "a very, very loving mother" – albeit one perpetually haunted by the knowledge of what she had done.

Haven't we progressed enough since the Middle Ages to see these truths, and reject the barbaric theology of "evil" children?

When accusations like this bleed into the news, we need to stand at the front of the looming lynch mob and say: Stop. Think. In 1861, a leader in The Times commented on the trial of two eight-year-old boys in Stockport who had tortured and killed a toddler. It said: "Children of that age cannot be held legally accountable in the same way as adults. It is absurd and monstrous that these two children have been treated like murderers." Isn't it time we progressed to 1862?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Members of the House of Lords gather for the state opening of Parliament  

Peer pressure: The nobles in the Lords should know when to go

Jane Merrick
Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s dictator, and the subject of the spoof Sony film  

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Joan Smith
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick